Taj Mahal by Javed Ahmed Malik

When we reached Agra, the sun was about to set. Like most typical Indian towns, Agra begins as a series of narrow roadside shops, stalls big and small, and people – coming and going, crossing roads and riding buses. Everywhere people, people and more people.


Ashok took several turns and at each one he asked, ‘Where is the Taj Mahal?’ And at each turn he received the same gesture, ‘seedha aagay’, straight ahead. Straight ahead was actually pretty winding but eventually it took us right to the middle of a semi-busy chowk where several rickshaws and hotel hawkers were waiting.


‘Let’s park the car here and try to have Taj’s glimpse in the final sun rays and then we can return and maybe take tea somewhere,’ Ashok said and stopped the car. His wife Neelam and I agreed immediately. There were many boys and young men wandering around, in part tour guides and in part hotel booking agents who unanimously informed us, ‘Taj is closed for the day. Only those who are already inside are allowed, no newcomers can go in. Entrance closes at five. You are already half-an-hour late.’


This was a new situation. Our idea was to spend two, three hours at the Taj and return to Delhi. Now, to see the famed monument, we had to stay overnight. I was beginning to realise that we had not planned the day well. Ashok was insistent in the morning that we should go to Fatehpur Sikri first and stop at Saleem Chishti’s shrine where he and Neelam wanted to pray for having their first child. 'We must go to the dargah first because otherwise it would appear as if our priority was touring the Taj.’ I knew they had been married for eight years, so I had to agree.


We were meeting after five years. Back then in Boston when I was departing for Lahore, I had promised Ashok that I would come to see him in Delhi. For many months in Boston, Ashok and I had discussed that it was just a six-hours road journey from Lahore to Delhi and that it was a shame that we had to meet in America where we both were enrolled as graduate students.


So, for me, his company was more important than sightseeing. I could not insist on visiting Agra first. But Ashok took it upon himself to come to the Taj. As a result, we had reached Agra now and were thinking we would stay overnight, see the Taj in the first light and then return. It still allowed me the day for the conference I had come to attend. There was an evening event planned at the India International Centre where I was expecting to catch up with my other friends from the media who over the years had been coming to Pakistan and meeting me one way or the other.


All tourist places are the same. Agra was no different. Somebody you choose for a random reason, looks, dress or even language, leads you from one hotel to another. I let Neelam and Ashok decide about the hotel. After rejecting one or two due to strange smells in the rooms or because they were too dark, we ended up in Rim Jhim Hotel, which seemed very new.


‘We opened our business in November only,’ a serious looking young Manager told us. The manager handed over keys to Ashok whereas I had to wait as I disclosed that I am Pakistani and showed my passport and visa copies. The manager went quiet and then requested if I would mind if he would talk to the police about my stay in his hotel. That was not unusual. Many local hotels do not know that some visas are exempted from the mandatory police registration in each city you are allowed to visit, a standard procedure for most Pakistani visitors.


‘You can disclose this to police, no problem,’ I said. He talked to the local police station and after a while passed the receiver to me. There was a polite voice on the phone. ‘Do not worry Sir. Sit in the lobby and send the boy to me with papers and I will clarify your case.’


I sat in the lobby with Ashok while Neelam went to her room to freshen up. After a while, we decided to take tea in the restaurant in the lobby. Two hours passed. The manager never returned. I went back to the reception where now a young lady and a senior manager were present.


‘Sir you cannot stay with us. Police thinks that you should go back to Delhi right now,’ the new manager said apologetically.


‘Why is this urgency? I have a legal police-exempted visa for Agra.’


‘Sir tomorrow is India’s Republic Day. There is a high-security alert. I hope you understand sir,’ the manager informed me politely.


Ashok nodded and quietly suggested that we leave.


Do I have any other options now, I thought. Maybe I had. I could have gone to a different hotel and stayed there, but what if that hotel again tried to confirm from the same police station. Would not it further irritate them?


Could I go to the police station myself and explain, since legally I was right? Yes but they would ask questions from Ashok and Neelam too, unnecessarily exposing them to questions related to a Pakistani visitor just before the Republic Day? I remembered how after 26/11, we had waited for roughly six months before speaking again on phone directly.


It was getting cold, dark and misty, and as Ashok moved his car towards the main highway leading to Delhi, Neelam sitting now in the back, said, ‘Bhai we are really sorry.’ Ashok did not speak but I knew when he used to go quiet, it was when he was really under stress. The foggy motorway caused a slowing down of the car’s speed; the front mirror blurred again and again, forcing Ashok to clean it with a piece of cloth from inside. That mini-challenge, in a way helped all of us to focus on driving slowly while counting the kilometres and looking at our watches to see how close we were to Delhi.


It was late when we got past the fog as well as the uneasy traffic of the main Agra-Delhi road and stopped at a roadside café close to Noida for our meal. Only then did we feel safe and happy again, lifting ourselves with the memories of the old days; none of us remembered that we had left Agra in haste and without a single glimpse of the Taj Mahal.



Javed Ahmed Malik has written mostly in the development and social policy domain but is now turning to fiction for its amazing ability to tell what is real, ordinary and extraordinary. He is working on his first novel set in the context of the conflict in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He lives and works in Lahore, Pakistan.